The wealthy have always been in control. They are today, they were when Jesus walked the planet. He tried a revolution, but the wealthy commandeered the theology and killed the revolution. I have never claimed to be a biblical scholar nor a historian of the first century, but I do have suspicions. My suspicion is that the basic beliefs of Christianity today are the product of infiltration by outsiders.
For starters, let’s look today at the crucifixion. First the rich and powerful killed Jesus, and then they convinced his second and third generation followers that the murder was god’s plan.
Here’s a simple question: did Jesus attract followers because he spoke about love, or because he told people that god was angry and needed some sacrifice, and he was going to be that sacrifice and die for their sins?
The answer is obvious. Jesus lived a life filled with love and called upon others to do the same. In a society rampant with oppression of the poor and of women, Jesus taught about a life based on caring and sharing with and for all. He attracted a group of men and women, some 25 in number that formed an inner circle, but he also attracted others who were impacted by his presence and teaching. Opposed to all injustice and favoring the poor, the revolutionary Jesus also attracted the attention of the authorities, and so they had him killed.
Prior to the crucifixion, many disciples of Jesus experienced the new life he was exhibiting, and, inspired by the spirit of Jesus, they set out on their own. We know about such “movers on” because we have two documents they created that embody their memory of Jesus. These are the Gospel of Thomas and Q. Beginning with the latter, if you set the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke side by side, you immediately notice two literary similarities. They both contain most of the Gospel of Mark and use Mark to form the structure of their story. But they also contain in common a great deal of other material, and most scholars infer that they each had this document when they independently wrote their respective gospels. This inferred document is called Q, and dates from the first century.
A complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas, written perhaps as early as 60 ce, was discovered in 1945 at Nag Hamadi, Egypt. Like Q, it contains only sayings of Jesus, without any biography, and no crucifixion and no resurrection narratives. It is easy to infer that these two writings, Q and Thomas, originated with the “movers on”, which is to say that there were followers of Jesus who experienced the new life he conveyed, but had no idea at all of a crucifixion of Jesus.
On the other hand, the 25 or so men and women disciples who did remain with Jesus ultimately saw him crucified. But for them that was not the end of the story. As they came together, no doubt hugging one another and shedding tears, they found the spirit of Jesus alive in their midst. It was not the resuscitation of a body that had left the tomb, but a new and higher level of awareness that the power of evil had been overcome by the power of love. There was no belief that the crucifixion of Jesus had in any magical way “saved them from their sins”. In this sense, the inner core of disciples was just like the “movers on” of the Q and Thomas communities: nobody believed that the death of Jesus saved them from anything. It was the new life in the power of love that mattered.
So where did the concept that “Jesus died for your sins” come from? In the 15th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul quotes a creed that he had received which states that “Christ had died for our sins, according to scripture”. Some scholars date this creed as early as 2 years after the crucifixion, others at anywhere up to 10 years. In any case, it is clear that the doctrine of atonement arose early on, and apparently was a product of the Jerusalem church.
It has been common to say that the inner disciples were so shaken by the cross that they searched the Hebrew scriptures looking for clues as to why it had happened. They turned to the prophet Second Isaiah, found the words about one who “was wounded for our transgressions”, and applied them to Jesus. This “fulfilled prophecy” “proved” that the crucifixion of Jesus was part of God’s plan of salvation.
It has also been common to interpret Jesus as the sacrifice celebrated on the holy Day of Atonement, wherein the sacrificial animal bore the sins of the people. The canonical gospels even have John the Baptist saying, upon seeing Jesus, “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
These are mistaken inferences. Isaiah foretold nothing about Jesus and John never said those words. The disciples experienced the new life both before as well as after the crucifixion and needed no atoning sacrifice to appease the wrath of an angry god. The crucifixion did not shape their faith at all.
The mystery intensifies: where then did the idea that Jesus “died for your sins” come from, if not from the disciples? What happened in Jerusalem? Here is where my suspicions come into play. It is no secret that the powers that crucified Jesus continued to be in control. The Jesus movement was still alive and well, despite their attempt to kill it. The basis for their economy and their power was threatened. The liberation of slaves and of women threatened the rich and powerful, pure and simple.They had murdered the leader, but the movement continued to grow. There was a lot at stake.The revolution could not be stopped by force, but could be and in fact was stopped by commandeering the theology. The authorities made the cross essential to god’s plan of salvation. They were not the murderers of the leader Jesus, they were the instrument that fulfilled god’s plan. As such, they were not to be questioned or disobeyed, and the teaching of Jesus about love was set aside. Remember that quote from the New Testament in 1 Timothy, which demands that slaves obey masters, women obey husbands, and everyone obeys the rulers, who no doubt obey the wealthy. The whole concept of the atoning death of Jesus was not a product of the disciples’ faith, but was instead a creation of the rich and powerful who wanted to maintain their stranglehold on society.
Next time, the resurrection.
Read Part One Here
Read Part Three Here
Read Part Four Here
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Norwich, VT.